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Opinion: Locked out of classrooms, Afghan girls are taking drastic measures

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It was June last year, shortly before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Heela’s mother, a former director of government services (who does not want to be named for security reasons), and her three other sisters in primary school were all thrilled that she was entering 10th grade. (Heela’s father no longer lives with the family.)

They all went to a restaurant in Kabul’s bustling Shah-e-Naw district and celebrated Heela’s success with Kabab and Qabeli palaw, a traditional Afghan dish.

Now, nearly eight months after the Taliban takeover radically changed girls’ education, that day seems like a distant dream for Heela’s family. Last week, the girl tried to end her life by taking more than 20 sleeping pills. After finding her unconscious one morning, Heela’s family rushed her to the hospital where she was rescued.

Heela’s mother, who is hiding at home with her four daughters, told me, “Maybe ending our lives will be easier than continuing this life.” Since the Taliban took control, dozens of former government employees, security forces, policewomen, lawyers and judges have been killed or disappeared.

Sobbing, her mother said to me, “I called her Heela — hope. But today our lives are so dark that even his name can give him no hope.

According to Taliban rules, girls above 6th grade are no longer allowed to attend school. But access to education in Afghanistan is risky business for anyone. While girls’ schools have been repeatedly targeted by the Taliban and other armed groups like the ISKP in different parts of the country over the years, education centers for ethnic and sectarian minorities like the Shiites and the hazaras were also attacked.

On Tuesday, a boys’ education center and a high school in a Kabul neighborhood with a large Shia and Hazara community were bombed, killing at least six people.

Just under eight months since the Taliban took power and nearly all international organizations withdrew from the country, the picture for ordinary Afghans is grim. But you don’t really hear our stories in the international media anymore, as attention turns to the war in Ukraine. Stories about Afghanistan are tied to US foreign policy priorities – and when the US abandoned Afghanistan, we disappeared from the news.

Today, Afghanistan is on the brink of civil war. Every day, dozens of killings, kidnappings and targeted killings of former government officials, Taliban opponents, activists and journalists make the news, thanks to the last vestiges of a free press.

Meanwhile, women I work with in different parts of Afghanistan share stories of pockets of armed resistance against the Taliban in parts of the country. They say incidents of internal Taliban fighting are on the rise.

When the Trump administration entered into direct negotiations with the Taliban in 2018, many of us in Afghanistan welcomed the effort. Indeed, we had already started the process long before the United States. I was part of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan where we traveled to different provinces, spoke with armed insurgents, their mothers, community members and mobilized communities to influence local and national peace processes.

During these trips to different provinces, I met and spoke with many young people from the Taliban insurgency who had real grievances. They had to be given a voice and a platform to live their lives without fear. This is why I have continued to advocate for an inclusive peace and political settlement between the Taliban and other members of Afghan society.

The Taliban are only a part of Afghanistan. There are many other groups — millions of young women and men who have found peace using their democratic rights over the past 20 years; women who have made careers in politics, sport, media and business; and countless other social, religious and ethnic communities.

We women were much more organized than other political and social groups. We got together, talked to community members, voiced our concerns and continued to ask to be included in the negotiations that were taking place in Doha.

But members of the US negotiating team and the international community, including the European Union and other countries, have been content with one or two meetings between themselves and some of the women leaders.

We asked them to help us meet the Taliban leaders in person so we could share our side of the story. We asked the UN envoys, the American ambassadors, the American special envoy and the European ambassadors. None of them took the risk of undermining their negotiations with the Taliban leaders by bringing Afghan women leaders into regular meetings. They kept us in silos – with just zoom meetings here and there, took pictures and tweeted empty comments like: “Afghan women’s voice should be heard in the peace process”.

Explosions in northern Afghanistan kill at least 15, injure dozens

The United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban alone – excluding women and the Afghan people, diminishing the chances of a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan people. The US-Taliban agreement paved the way for the Taliban’s political takeover of Kabul. And with that, the removal of public spaces for millions of Afghan women and educational opportunities for at least 5 million girls. This is not just a crisis of women’s rights and freedoms – the country is collapsing too.

I understand that the Taliban are only one actor among others in the image of Afghanistan today. And if the country descends further into chaos and internal unrest, if armed resistance groups turn to terrorist organizations for ammunition and support, if Taliban infighting leads to the emergence of insurgencies, so it is the Taliban who are responsible for it. But the US, EU and other stakeholders also bear some responsibility for signing a peace deal with the Taliban without an inclusive political settlement.

Over the past 20 years, as Afghan women and girls have fought for political and public spaces, members of United Nations agencies, international human rights organizations and women leaders have told us that there is international law that protects you, there are conventions, there are UN Security Council resolutions. But today, I can’t say any of this to Heela’s mother, who doesn’t sleep at night for fear that Heela will try to end her life again.

To world leaders, feminist movements, women and human rights activists internationally, I ask: Are the rights of Afghan women no longer relevant? The US government has certainly turned a blind eye to them. And if international rhetoric, laws and UN resolutions fail to protect the rights of Afghan women and girls, can women in other parts of the world really trust these systems?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m not tired of repeating myself for 20 years, if my voice has any meaning or importance. But the 200 women I interact with daily, whose stories, cries for help, thank-you messages, and tearful voice notes crash my phone every morning keep me trying another day.

These voices are the first harbingers of another crisis in the making, a civil war in Afghanistan that will once again harbor and anchor terrorist groups like Al-Qaida and others in the region that can pose serious threats to the global security. We need to be heard.

How to get help: A worldwide directory of resources and international helplines is also provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. You can also turn to Befrienders Worldwide.

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